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Alumni Almanac

Seizing the Moment

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Many lawyers map out their career plans with precision. They know exactly what kind of law they want to practice almost from the minute they begin law school. Christina Sanford ’00, a Root-Tilden-Kern Public Interest Scholar, thought she knew, too.

“I had one main goal: I wanted to work in public policy on child welfare and poverty issues,” said the Law Women’s 2011 Alumna of the Year in an interview before she accepted the award. The international arena wasn’t part of that plan. But after serving as a summer intern at the State Department, she was offered a spot as an attorney/adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State a year out of law school. “She was a self-described U.S. policy wonk,” says her NYU Law roommate Carrie Syme ’00. “So ending up in the State Department surprised her a little bit. But I think she quickly realized that it’s all part of the same commitment to public service.”

Sanford started on Monday, September 10, 2001, expecting her job responsibilities to be a mixture of management and regulatory work, such as dealing with what allowances foreign-service officers are legally eligible for. “The first day was pretty quiet,” she told the audience at the award reception. “It got considerably busier.”

When the second plane hit the tower, Sanford remembers, she was getting her badge. The nature of her job changed instantly. During the year that followed, she spent a majority of her time coordinating embassy evacuations. Since then she has helped establish the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, worked on the State Department’s 9/11 task force, advised the newly appointed government in Baghdad in 2004 through the transition to the nation’s first democratically elected government, and most recently helped Sudan figure out how to handle the upcoming secession of southern Sudan. “It’s not your typical legal job,” she admits candidly. “But I can’t think of a better job or one that has given me more opportunities.”

The chances she has had would make a wistful globetrotter green with envy. In the first six months on the job, she traveled to New Delhi to help with evacuations at the embassy there and has since been to Ethiopia, Chad, Kenya, Iraq, and the Sudan, among other countries. Not bad for someone who grew up just outside of San Francisco, went to college in Arizona, and hadn’t ever applied for a passport. “Before I started at the State Department, I had never gone anywhere that required one,” she says.

Mindful of her responsibility to be discreet, Sanford, now 37, says that she has been able to have an impact on world events and how they unfold. “Watching things happen that you know you have contributed to—knowing that you’ve helped—is incredibly exciting and rewarding,” she says. She also loves the constantly changing nature of her job. State’s legal office moves the 170 attorneys in the department around every few years—and for Sanford that’s a good thing. “I may sound a bit like Pollyanna. But what I like most about this job is that I get to change jobs on a regular basis,” she says with a warm smile, tucking her long brown hair behind her ear. “We get to work on lots of different issues, and that lets you continue learning. It never goes stale.”

Not everything is always rosy, of course. Sanford had to live in a war zone in Iraq for a year, for example, where she rarely, if ever, ventured outside without a military escort. And she says the seeming paralysis caused by consensus-based decision making frustrates her. Nevertheless, Sanford considers herself lucky. “When I go to work, I deal with issues of law like how the Sudanese will be able to divide the wealth in the country between its two halves when the south secedes,” she says. “It’s human interest.”

And after all, helping people is pretty much what Sanford’s original goal boils down to. “Be prepared,” says the recipient of the 2006 Call to Service Medal awarded by the Partnership for Public Service, offering advice to today’s law students. “You could end up doing something completely different than you expect. But don’t close yourself off from the opportunity.” You very well might end up where you wanted to be after all.

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